'Talking About Trees': Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A troubling true death of cinema.

Director Suhaib Gasmelbari chronicles the demise of Sudanese cinema and the group of retired directors hoping to revive their country’s love of film.

For those who prefer to watch movies in the comfort of their own streaming services, the eye-opening documentary Talking About Trees may make them reconsider the value, both cultural and political, of being able to see something on the big screen.

Directed by Suhaib Gasmelbari, Talking About Trees chronicles the actions of the Sudanese Film Club, a group of retired (though not through their own volition) movie directors who try to reopen a theater in the city of Omdourman, located just outside of Khartoum. But in a country dominated by Islamists who have made the existence of cinema extremely difficult, especially in the public sphere, this proves to be a Sisyphean task.

The club is headed up by four filmmakers — Ibrahim Shadad, Manar Al Hilo, Suleiman Mohamed Ibrahim, Altayeb Mahdi — whose evocative work is revealed in short clips throughout the documentary. All of them were educated in film schools outside Sudan, and their politically bent movies, many of which have been banned or lost, reflect the influence of both Soviet montage and the French New Wave.

“The death of cinema was not natural at all,” one of them explains. “It died suddenly.” Without pointing fingers, Gasmelbari reveals how a government controlled by Islamic fundamentalists for the past three decades (beginning with a military coup in 1989; a form of Sharia law was instituted in parts of Sudan starting in 1991) resulted in the demise of an entire film industry and heritage, with only a few remaining theaters screening Hollywood and Bollywood blockbusters in central Khartoum.

Using whatever means available, including a laptop and modest video projector, Shadad and his cohorts try to bring film history back to the people, hosting free screenings of classics like Chaplin’s Modern Times in town squares. Their mobile cinematheque manages to attract small crowds, many of whom have never seen a movie projection before, and the group decides to up the ante by revitalizing a huge outdoor theater that’s been deserted for years. Their hope is to show a popular but artistic work — they decide upon Tarantino’s Django Unchained — that will convince the Sudanese how important it is to be able to see good movies on the big screen.

But they quickly run into a wall of red tape and official censorship, with the risk of being jailed or worse. Other pitfalls include the cost of buying a decent projector and screen — a telling image shows the theater’s original 35mm projector covered in dust — as well as dealing with sound issues from prayer calls simultaneously ringing out from five surrounding minarets. (This becomes a running gag of sorts, with the Film Club members constantly having to interrupt their conversations until the calls end.)

What Talking About Trees reveals is both the loss of a country’s cultural history and the impossibility of reviving it, at least as long as the Islamists remain in power. Outside Sudan, there are initiatives like Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, which has restored several African films in recent years and could be one solution for saving works by Shadad and the others. Otherwise these men are pretty much on their own — “We are smarter, but they are stronger,” one of them admits — and it’s admirable how much they approach their situation with so much humor and sangfroid, if not a certain resignation.

Gasmelbari captures the daily grind of the Sudanese Film Club in an unassuming manner that simply lets their words and deeds speak for themselves. His documentary is far from a gripping, edge-of-your seat tale of adversity, but rather a quiet and contemplative look at artists forced to face the reality that their work can no longer exist where they live. (Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film comes to mind here, especially during an early scene where the group pantomimes the making of a movie without real equipment.)

For those who have the option of actually watching a film on the big screen yet prefer to stay glued to Netflix, Talking About Trees is a telling true story of what happens when such an option expires for good. As one Sudanese man, hopeful of attending his first public screening in a long while, explains at some point: “Seeing a movie with friends is better than watching one alone at home.” As usual, it’s only when something is gone that you realize how much you miss it.

Production company: AGAT Films & Cie
Director-screenwriter-cinematographer: Suhaib Gasmelbari
Producer: Marie Balducchi
Editors: Nelly Quettier, Gladys Jouou
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama Dokumente)
Sales: Wide House

In Arabic, English, Russian
93 minutes